So, you're learning a second language. Are you agonizing about which language program or method would be best to become fluent in French, German, Korean, or even in Mandarin? And with that, are you thinking about your “learning style”?
WHAT ARE LEARNING STYLES?
The concept of individual learning styles became popular in the 1970s and continues to endure. The impetus behind it is the idea that each person learns a little differently. It's an idea that's hard to argue against.
In the 1970s and 80s, the theory of individual learning styles served as a way to get beyond traditional methods of teaching that were textbook-based and heavy on rote memorization. Even now, the theory of learning styles continues to play a role in educational policy. Where it is applied, classroom teachers are encouraged to adapt their materials to what is assumed to be the learning style(s) of their students.
Though there are various learning-style models, these are the three basic learning styles that are often cited. They define how people PREFER to take in information:
1. “aural” (using sound and music)
2. “visual” (using pictures, images, spatial understanding)
3. “kinestetic” (using touch, manipulation, gestures)
To these three basic styles, four more have been added:
4. “verbal” (using primarily words)
5. “logical” (using logic, reasoning, systems)
6. “social” (learning with other people, in groups)
7. “solitary” (learning alone, by self-study)
If you're a self-learner, you too may stumble across sites or blogs that encourage you to identify “your learning style.” You're typically told: “That way, you'll learn faster.”
A BEST LEARNING STYLE FOR LEARNING A LANGUAGE?
We don't all learn a foreign language the same way. That's absolutely true. There's a myriad of reasons for this. They include our background, knowledge, interests, experience, abilities, lifestyle, etc.
There's also no question that we as individuals have different preferences. And yes, we have different strengths and weaknesses that impact on learning a foreign language. But should we just learn with our strengths?
It may surprise you that the answer is “No.” Each of the 7 learning styles mentioned above applies itself very well to foreign language learning. But - think about it - learning and using a language involves ALL of the above ways of acquiring information.
YOU BUILD A SKILL BY PRACTICING IT
I do agree that it's probably a good idea to get started in a language by learning in a way that you prefer. If you favor a certain way of learning (with videos, audios, flashcards, by talking, or by writing, etc.), it may be the best way to get going in your language. However, it's not a good strategy for really learning a language in the long run. Just think about the answers to the following questions:
- If you just use pictures to learn vocabulary, then how will you master abstract concepts in a foreign language?
- If you just listen to the language, how will you learn how to read and write it?
- If you just study alone, how will you build your social skills in your new language?
In short, the idea of using just your strong learning style(s) ultimately doesn't make much sense when you're learning another language.
Consider this: “Research shows us that each learning style uses different parts of the brain. By involving more of the brain during learning, we remember more of what we learn.” (See Overview of learning-styles)
What you really want is involve as MANY of your “learning styles” as you can to fully engage your brain.
It comes down to this: To function well in a foreign language, you need to learn and use a broad variety of skills.
BUT IF ALL I WANT IS TO LEARN TO SPEAK, NOTHING ELSE?
What if you just want to be able to speak, to converse in the language you're learning. That's all. Okay, you don't want to read, you don't care about grammar rules, you're not interested in writing in the foreign language.
Fair enough. But to have a good conversation, you still need to use several “styles” of taking in and processing information.
You need to be able to decode the stream of sounds that you're hearing. You have to take in and understand the visual signals that you see, interpret your conversation partner's facial expressions and any gestures he or she is making. And finally, you have to use correct body language, appropriate facial expressions, and gestures yourself.
Even by just speaking with someone, you're covering all three basic “learning styles”: aural, visual, and kinesthetic. Plus, you're also being social, verbal, and logical (I hope). If you've practiced and can use all of these skills, your conversation will go much more smoothly.
WEAVING YOUR “LANGUAGE SKILL ROPE”
When learning a language - even just for speaking it - don't just focus on your preferred learning style. A much better approach is to see language learning as a process that involves learning and practicing multiple skills.
Michael Erard, author of “Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners” suggests that language learning is very much like “weaving a rope” that consists of several skill-strands. By weaving them together, you strengthen the rope (or language ability) as a whole.
In his own words: “Ropes, as everybody knows, are made up of multiple strands, and language skills, like other skills, are made up of cognitive, social, and emotional components. Learners have to have those strands modeled, and they also have to be given opportunities to practice weaving those strands together.”
(Also see more about language rope weaving in a recent post.)
Rather than worrying about which program or method fits best with your “learning style,” chose the one that engages and motivates you the most. But then try to maximize your exposure to the target language in as many ways as you can, ideally every day. That is the key to rapid progress.
So, try out and then choose a program that is fun to do and to practice with – even if it does not conform with the way you think you're supposed to learn.
And remember: The “best” program is useless, if you don't use it!
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.